The 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act highlights the need to reinforce and reinvigorate efforts to reduce housing discrimination and residential segregation in America.
Many of the disparities documented in the 1968 Kerner Commission report that informed the law persist: too many impoverished, communities of color continue to experience high levels of insecurity and violence, substandard sanitation, poor health, higher mortality rates, and a dearth of affordable healthy foods and services. Today, we know even more about the many ways that housing segregation shapes health and wellbeing.
Residential segregation has had a paralyzing effect, creating unhealthy community environments, and ultimately separating some communities of color from economic mobility and opportunity.
Lack of access to safe, quality, affordable housing undermines physical and mental wellbeing, and takes an especially heavy toll on children. Living near vacant or abandoned properties, in homes contaminated by lead or mold, or in neighborhoods without parks and access to safe, clean water undercuts the health and life expectancy of entire communities.
Where you live determines the quality of public education and access to economic opportunities, and residential segregation compounds broader inequities in our society.
While the persistence of housing segregation is hard to accept, it’s not hard to explain. By 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, racially segregated neighborhoods were already the norm. And policies that ensured and entrenched racial segregation in housing have continued to drive inequities down to the present, from “urban renewal” in the 1950s and 60s to the recent subprime loan policies and foreclosure crisis. As a result of these systemic inequities, residential segregation continues in nearly every major American city to this day.
Unfortunately, we stand to repeat mistakes of the past and are heading in the wrong direction. Earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) abruptly suspended the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that required jurisdictions that receive funding from HUD to assess fair housing, analyze the patterns that perpetuate or create segregation, and identify solutions to address challenges and barriers.
Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act became the law of the land, it’s time to pursue the Act’s promise with renewed energy and commitment as we embark on the next 50 years. That means expanding the Fair Housing Act’s protections, not rescinding them, and investigating the factors that create and perpetuate residential segregation, rather than turning away from the problem. Government agencies, nonprofits, and sectors like education, healthcare, employment, and transportation have the power to end the segregation from opportunity that too often accompanies racial segregation. We need to leverage federal funding to get cities and counties to address residential segregation. In many cities, community-led movements are showing the way forward.
- In Buffalo, New York, one of the poorest cities in the United States, a community-led organization, PUSH Buffalo, has led efforts to increase community ownership of its land, with support from state affordable housing development grants, as well as foundations and private donors. So far, the organization has secured 120 parcels of land devoted to affordable housing and the creation of green jobs and infrastructure. Land ownership is a safeguard against the threats of gentrification and displacement, and creates opportunities for people to build wealth, connect with neighbors, and shape their neighborhood’s trajectory.
- In Philadelphia, the National Fair Housing Alliance invested settlement funds from a large fair housing enforcement action in to two programs run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: their Roots to Reentry program, and their LandCare program. These programs provide training and employment in landscaping, vacant lot cleanup, and other essential job skills to men and women returning to their communities from the Philadelphia Prison System. The lot cleanups that they have undertaken all across Philadelphia have provided safer, greener spaces, and studies have even shown a significant reduction in gun violence as a result.
- In Boston, Massachusetts, the Male Engagement Network(MEN), which focuses on creating pathways to success for men of color, works on the issue of affordable housing for single fathers with children. MEN partners have provided education and resources on tenants’ rights and home ownership, advocated for a tax to help support affordable housing, and pushed for reforms to Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws that create barriers for people who have been charged with crimes to find jobs and housing.
These community examples are just a sampling of the solutions underway to counter the policies, laws, and practices that have resulted in inequitable opportunity and poor health outcomes. But more is needed. To achieve optimal health, we must stay laser-focused on addressing the systemic barriers and challenges that impede progress. Dismantling residential segregation is key to achieving equitable health outcomes across race and ensuring that every community is afforded equitable access to opportunity.
Dana Fields-Johnson is a program manager at Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit based in Oakland, California.
Jessica Aiwuyor is associate director of communications at the National Fair Housing Alliance.